Senckenberg Research


Research HEP Tübingen





Human evolution and environmental change during the youngest epoch in earth history have become an important focus of Senckenberg research during the last six years. HEP Tübingen was founded to advance existing core competences in these scientific fields. Its goal has been to identify and disentangle the interdependent processes driving the biological and cultural evolution of humans and their ancestors in the context of changing palaeoenvironments. Thus, the basic research question, is in fact similar to that of ROCEEH but highly focused on human-environment interaction.

Laboratory for ancient DNA © University TübingenSince 2009, Senckenberg (as of 2012 together with the Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts Baden-Württemberg) has financed the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment at the University Tübingen (HEP Tübingen). HEP research positions in Frankfurt and Tübingen are held by highranking scientists of international standing, covering the fields of archeobotany, archaeometry, archaeozoology, biogeology, geoarchaeology, palaeontology, palaeoanthropology, palaeoclimatology, palaeogenetics and prehistory. Together with the relevant collections and laboratories in Tübingen and Frankfurt, and with the human-ethologic film-library of Prof. I. Eibl-Eibesfeldt (a candidate for the UNESCO Memory of the World Program, and scheduled for transfer from the Max Planck Institute to Senckenberg in 2014), the Senckenberg research infrastructure for human evolution and palaeoenvironment is globally unique.


Major research issues (including core competences and facilities) are:

    Geometric Morphometrics © Universität Tübingen
  • Extensive excavations at numerous archaeological sites and hominid localities
  • Investigation of the systematics, diversity, adaptation and ecology of human ancestors
  • Analysis of lithic artefacts in early cultural evolution
  • Hominid and primate functional morphology and morphometry
  • Hominid and primate behavior
  • Analysis of distribution patterns and the ecologic framework of dispersal processes
  • 3D-morphometry and virtual anthropology, high resolution computer tomography, 3D surface scanning and image analysis
  • Reconstruction of palaeoclimate, paleoenvironment, and diet based on botanical and zoological proxies
  • Chronostratigraphy, as well as taxonomy, phylogeny, palaeoecology and biostratigraphy of Neogene large and small mammals, as well as non-mammalian vertebrates

Since 2009, the founding of HEP has expanded and intensified the initial collaboration between Senckenberg and Tübingen. It provides an opportunity to conduct trend-setting, transdisciplinary research, with the aim of developing a comprehensive, integrative understanding of the biological and cultural evolution of humans and their ancestors, including the influence of changing climate and environmental conditions. It is our assumption that human biological evolution and early human culture was largely driven by changing palaeoenvironments and climate until ca. 2 million years ago, with cultural evolution gradually assuming an increasingly important role since then. This led to the key question of our research: Which processes and interdependencies influenced diversity and processes of biological and early cultural evolution of humans and their ancestors in the context of changing palaeoenvironments?

Fields of Research

Evolutionary Anthropology: In the last three years, the newly formed group of Evolutionary Anthropology at HEP Tübingen (founded in October 2009) has been remarkably successful both in establishing state of the art infrastructure and conducting internationally visible research in human evolution. Two important recent milestones for Evolutionary Anthropology were the initiation of the HEP High Resolution CT Laboratory in 2010, accomplished with funds from DFG and the University of Tübingen, and the launching of the new project “Paleoanthropology at the Gates of Europe (PaGE)” in 2012, awarded with a European Research Council Starting Grant, which started four new field projects in Greece. Recently, the DFG decided to promote a new research association with the title "Words, Bones, Genes, Tools" with 2.7 million Euro. The interdisciplinary project wants to fill a gap in the study of human prehistory.

Prehistory: In keeping with the great tradition of fieldwork, team members from Tübingen led major excavations in Excavations at Hohle Fels Cave, Germany. © Universität TübingenGermany, France, South Africa, Arabia, Syria and Iran. This work typically focused on areas of human evolution during the Middle and Late Pleistocene and the cultural adaptations of late archaic and early modern humans. In each of these regions, groundbreaking research helped to complete the cultural stratigraphic succession of the last ca. 500,000 years, spanning the Lower, Middle and Upper Paleolithic. Our analyses addressed past systems of subsistence and mobility, as well as patterns of cultural and technological innovations. While excavations in all of these regions produced important results with far-reaching ramifications for the research community, the caves of the Swabian Jura continued to produce important evidence of early symbolic artifacts that have an important bearing on the definition and origins of cultural modernity.

Neogene (including Pleistocene) environments, vertebrates and terrestrial palaeoclimatology: This newly formed group at HEP Tübingen (founded in December 2009) made progress in developing international leading research on Neogene terrestrial ecological systems and terrestrial climate. The members analyze the dynamics of both ecological systems and continental climate, using high-resolution chronology and spatially extensive databases, as well as a diverse set of methodological approaches (vertebrates, plants, morphologic, isotope-geochemical, geophysical as well as database supported analyses). Close cooperation has been established with Senckenberg in the fields of palaeoclimate and palaeovegetation modeling and proxy-based palaeoenvironmental reconstructions.


Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment plans to develop its research activity by further advancing synergies between the University of Tübingen and Senckenberg. The advanced research program will be supported by the implementation of three projects: 1) Human Evolution: Environmental impact and culture, 2) Human Evolution: Adaptation, subsistence and health, and 3) Human Evolution: Behavior.